Challenging Authority in Schools

Recently, there’s been conversation about books recommended by Common Core. For the post of the week, we looked at a recent post about the Common Core booklist and what that means for students. Essentially, it looked at how a recommended reading list becomes the end all be all. Books on the list are to be read and books off the list are ignored. This puts a lot of power in the hands of those creating the book lists. I’ve previously looked at how diversity is something lacking in these books, however that’s more a symptom of a larger problem. The issue with power and authority in our country and-even more broadly-our world is inextricably tied with every prejudice and injustice that happens.

I did the International Baccalaureate Program in high school, which focused heavily on the issues of authority. My entire junior year’s english class looked at race and gender and how power structures are influenced by them. The books we read were reflective of these themes. The God of Small Things looks at twins growing up in India, specifically focusing on class-based discriminations between castes and gender-based discrimination. We also read Woman at Point Zero which looked at the life of an Egyptian woman and the extreme discrimination she faced and the life she led because of that.

In addition to both books being written by women of color, they also challenged the existing power structures in their communities and caused our class to have uncomfortable discussions about them. I think that was an incredibly valuable experience as a junior in high school. I’m white and middle class, so I’m in a position where I could theoretically ignore much of the injustice going on in the world which would therefore uphold the power structures that let them happen. But to have a class where we were told we would be made uncomfortable was so important, because realizing that I felt uncomfortable just discussing racism in a classroom made me realizing how uncomfortable it must be to face discrimination at that level on a daily basis. That class challenged our beliefs and forced us to look beyond our own experiences and sympathize with others-something that is very needed in today’s political atmosphere. We also read 1984 which is a staple of many English classrooms. This classic also dealt with themes of challenging authority and questioning those in charge, and, while that ultimately fails, it encourages readers to be critical of the world they live in.

Senior year took a more theoretical approach to looking at authority. We did have to read and analyze classics like The Great Gatsby and Walt Whitman (both of which I love and found very valuable), however we also had to read books that are less common in English classrooms. Now, The Stranger and Handmaid’s Tale aren’t exactly unheard of in English classrooms, but the way they were treated was incredibly important. The Stranger was taught in conjunction with a historical background of French Algeria and nihilism. The book forced us to contemplate if the world is really worth any of it (I will warn that for second semester seniors, nihilism was a pretty easy concept to get on board with). It challenges the status quo. Nihilists don’t exactly make for the best participants in a overtly capitalist society like the one we live in where working is valued above all. The Handmaid’s Tale was about power structures and challenged us to think about the system we live in today. Thinking about what can cause a society like that in The Handmaid’s Tale and how that society can continue existing is important when our society is and continues to be so flawed.

We also looked at Never Let Me Go, which was one of the most important books I think I’d ever read. This may be because it came at a time where I was about to go through the largest transition I ever had (even though I only moved thirty minutes away from my home, that was the first time I moved that I could remember), but this book really challenged the way I thought. It looked at ethical issues in a mysterious way and dealt with adolescence, the ephemeral nature of life, and even went to question in depth what it meant to be human. Never Let Me Go challenges not only authority, but also the way that we look at ourselves and think about who and where we are.

Now, you may be wondering: why on earth did she just give us a detailed run down of the major themes of the last two years of her high school english class? And this is where I loop back around to Common Core and other recommended reading lists. When people in power make the reading lists, often it seems that they downplay books about challenging authority. Which makes sense, because they’re who have the potential to loose power from people questioning authority.

This has serious ramifications when that attitude is shared by the more privileged individuals in society. For instance, earlier this year, Duke University freshman protested their summer reading book because the subject matter contained homosexual themes and nudity. The book looks at a woman coming to terms with her sexuality and the issues surrounding that, something that heterosexual people don’t have experience about. A book that focuses on this theme would be important to consider to read as a way of better understanding a large community in the world. However, a first year wrote “I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” indicating that the mere idea of homosexuality and nudity needs to be censored and not explored.

The need for a more open discussion about issues, and specifically issues surrounding those the LGBT community, became very evident two months later. In November, someone wrote a death threat including a homophobic slur/ targeting a specific student in a residence hall. Immediately after, students at Duke and surrounding communities stood up in solidarity with the student and other members of the LGBT community. However, someone was still so ignorant and aggressively against someone seemingly because of their sexual orientation at a prominent university. The same university where 2 months prior, some students felt that reading a book about a lesbian was worth kicking up a fuss and boycotting it in a very public fashion.

While I am not part of the LGBT community, most of my friends are heavily involved, and it’s awful to see people still being so ignorant and at times overtly hateful against a group of people they actually know little about. Having books that challenge our ideas is important and valuable to our development through our lives and blindly refusing to consider any ideas that are contrary to what you believe is the root of prejudice and ignorance.

In my junior year, two of the books we read had explicit sex scenes, incest, and rape or sexual abuse. These are incredibly sensitive and mature topics, however they are a reality in our world, just like the existence of the LGBT community. Out of the six books I looked at (The God of Small Things, Woman at Point Zero, 1984, the Stranger, the Handmaid’s Tale, and Never Let Me Go ), only one hasn’t been banned or at least challenged (the Stranger). All of these books contain themes that people consider to be sensitive, mature, or provocative, however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. As high schoolers being prepared for college, coming in having read books that encourage you to be critical of existing systems is so valuable as is confronting viewpoints you don’t agree with and learning about other people’s perspectives.


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3 Responses to Challenging Authority in Schools

  1. Annie R says:

    Thank you for sharing your post, I found it very interesting. I particularly loved your quote, “having books that challenge our ideas is important and valuable to our development through our lives and blindly refusing to consider any ideas that are contrary to what you believe is the root of prejudice and ignorance.” I wholeheartedly agree. Your blog reminded of an article I read last year about a woman who only read books by minority authors for a year. She made some pretty worrisome discoveries. She quickly realized that it was much harder than she expected to find books by nonwhite authors. White authors dominate book reviews, bestseller lists, literary awards, and Amazon recommendations. She quotes “in a survey of New York Times articles published in 2011, author and cultural commentator Roxane Gay discovered that nearly 90 percent of the reviewed books were authored by white writers.” She goes on to explain that this is not just because there are fewer nonwhite authors. Authors of color encounter agents who “dismiss or don’t understand cultural references in their books. Publishing houses whitewash book covers and blame market demands.” They claim young white readers will not buy books with black characters on them, even though “millions of music albums” are sold in just that way. Stores even go so far as to segregate books by nonwhite characters into “ethnic” sections. This article points to bigger, overarching problems of acceptance and acknowledgement of diversity in society, which you pointed to with the Duke issues. As you said, “having books that challenge our ideas is important and valuable to our development through our lives,” yet the diverse books we should be reading in school face obstacles from their very conception, from publication to distribution. While there are people who blindly refuse to consider any ideas that are contrary to their own, and who could easily be classified as prejudice and ignorant, there are others who are merely products of their environment. By no means am I arguing that is an acceptable excuse, I do think that examples such as the Common Core reading list are products of our larger societal problems. I wonder if this problem can be changed from the bottom-up, or top-down. Is it the responsibility of the general population to demand more diverse books and push publishers and reviewers to accept them more readily and in greater abundance, or is this something that needs to be fixed at the publisher level? If bookstores stock more diverse books and change the classification, will that change demand? I don’t think any of these questions can be easily answered, if answered at all, yet I do hope change can and will happen throughout all these different sectors.

    Once again, thank you! I’ve loved reading our class’s Common Core discussion and I think your contribution was incredibly insightful.


  2. sydneymitchell17 says:

    I really enjoyed your post! I was also in IB in high school and we read The God of Small Things and The Handmaid’s Tale. Both of these books were extremely interesting and made my class really think about tough issues. And after all isn’t that the point of learning, talking through the tough issues in the hopes of improving our world? At some point students need to be exposed to the realities of the world we live in. I think that it is better for these issues to be discussed in a classroom setting rather than students becoming exposed to them without any prior knowledge of these things! Great post!!


  3. Imagine if the content of the books you mentioned matched the experience of learning in the classroom. We expose the students to a variety of books questioning authority … yet when one even much as deviates from the conformity riddled mechanism known as American schools – they’re disciplined, often severely. Simple exposure to someone’s idea of how to express themselves is restriction society while subjecting them to the same (in a microcosm) seems hypocritical.

    Now if the lessons to be learned were used as instruction how to deal with issues in today world (or even in the classroom) – that would be a start. I question how many students who read the Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 still voted for our current administration or those with similar view on the state or local levels (or even voted at all). Is so … then the lessons to be learned were lost once they left the classroom.


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